On Ugly Produce

 

January 5, 2016

FeaturesIssue 16: January/February 2016

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Close your eyes. You’re in the supermarket, in the produce section. You’re getting sleepy, very sleepy. Just kidding—you’re trying to pick out a red pepper. In a sea of red, you spot one with a hint of green. How do you respond?

Now imagine that you’re looking for a cucumber. There’s a hypnotizing array of straight ones. And then a cuke that’s curvy. Would you choose that one? And what if there was a slightly smaller cucumber?

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For most of us, the answers are all “no.” After we recover from the shock of seeing a fruit or vegetable that’s a different shape, size or color—heavens!—we still don’t buy it.

Then again, we rarely even have the option because imperfect produce seldom reaches the store. Most oddities aren’t even picked in the field. And then packing-shed culling further thins the crop out. In addition to appearance, packing logistics also play a role. For example, cucumbers are shipped in 24-count boxes (a “count pack”) and a curved one throws off the numbers.

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It’s a beauty pageant with an insistence on homogeneity. As a result, cosmetics doom about 25 percent of fruits and vegetables to the scrap heap even before they reach the retailer.

As those of you with gardens or an affinity for farmers’ markets can attest, fruits and vegetables grow however they damn well please. I’ve long threatened to create a T-shirt with the words, “Real food has curves.” And you likely know that imperfect produce has the same taste and nutritional qualities.

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Yet, most retailers don’t want “real” food, they want pristine, homogenous produce. They don’t want outliers because neither do we. Supermarket executives and produce managers say they’d love to be less picky with appearance, but shoppers’ spending indicates that we only want uniform produce. Then again, have we taught supermarkets, or have they taught us? Yes.

The goal of most supermarkets is to avoid unsold goods, but what is driving consumer disdain for ugly produce? It likely stems from our millennia-old fear of food poisoning. Ugly produce often triggers a visceral, subconscious rejection. We likely have that hard-wired response because of our species’ hunter-gather history, but it’s a bit ridiculous in today’s homogenized, sanitized supermarket scene.

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Today’s cosmetic culling means billions of pounds of produce are plowed under, composted, or even thrown away. That has harmful environmental, ethical, and economic implications. Contrastingly, buying ugly produce is a way to support (and eat) real food, which is likely more locally and sustainably grown.

Plus, imperfect produce is much more interesting. As you’ll see in this photo essay, they’re quirky, fun and full of life. Why pick a regular old carrot when you can have two hugging? Why buy a straight zucchini when you can find one shaped like an S? Incidentally, my quest to complete a produce alphabet continues, so please do send me your own photos if—when—you find produce that resembles letters, at wastedfood@gmail.com or on Twitter @WastedFood tagged #AlphabetProduce.

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Today, ugly produce is having a moment, flipping the notion of what’s beautiful. The topic has received plenty of press, including two recent articles in The New York Times. A recent Change.org petition asking supermarkets to sell “less than perfect” produce has received more than 100,000 signatures. Boston’s Daily Table sells produce that others have deemed cosmetically flawed. There are now subscription companies delivering ugly produce on both coasts—Hidden Harvest (Washington, D.C.) and Imperfect (Oakland). The latter collaborated with California retailer Raley’s to get imperfect fruits and vegetables into supermarkets.

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Hopefully this increased exposure for uglies will translate into acceptance. (And feel free to draw your own parallels into society at large). We can all seek out imperfect produce, tell retailers we’re open to it, or simply shop at markets that don’t judge food superficially. And we need to make these changes promptly because our produce status quo—wasting a quarter of what we grow for cosmetic reasons—that’s really ugly.

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Jonathan Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of WastedFood.com. He lives in North Carolina, where he writes, consults, lectures, and laments wasted food.

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